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What’s Wrong with the ‘Great Awokening’?

White Liberals’ Racial Attitudes Aren’t Too Far Left, They’re Stuck within a Crude Identity Politics

Center-left commentators have recently expressed concern about an ongoing progressive shift in white liberals’ attitudes regarding race in the United States. This shift — dubbed the ‘Great Awokening’ by Vox journalist Matthew Yglesias — began around 2014 and has affected white liberals’ opinions on several issues. These liberals (and white Democrats) are now more likely than they have ever been to attribute inequality to racial discrimination, claim that immigrants strengthen the country, support affirmative action, deprioritize border security, and embrace racial diversity.

According to center-left commentators, this Awokening is simply too extreme and, thus, threatening to the success of a broader progressive agenda — whether in the 2020 presidential election or in local organizing efforts. To support this assertion, they claim that white liberals’ racial attitudes have moved so far left that they are now more progressive than even those of liberal racial minorities. Zach Goldberg — the most cited critic of the Awokening — goes further, making two additional claims: that white liberals have actually begun to overstate racism’s prevalence and that they have embraced a saviorism that silences racial minorities. As he says, racially progressive whites “act like white saviors who must lead the rest of the country, including the racial minorities whose interests they claim to represent, to a vision of justice the less enlightened groups would not choose for themselves.”

Not only are these concerns misguided; they obscure the actual problem with white liberals’ newfound racial progressivism – its failure to move past the trappings of a crude identity politics.

Why Center-Left Concerns about the ‘Great Awokening’ are Misguided

Each claim undergirding center-left concerns about the Awokening is empirically wrong. Have white liberals drifted left of non-white liberals on matters of race? Not really. In fact, the evidence presented by center-left commentators shows the opposite: strong majorities of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic liberals consistently hold progressive opinions on racialized issues. Yes, those progressive majorities are somewhat larger among white liberals, but the inter-racial disparities are neither big nor persistent enough to demonstrate that white liberals have meaningfully lost touch with liberal people of color. To the contrary, the two aggregates are probably more aligned now than they have ever been.

Okay, but as Goldberg asserts, maybe in embracing racial progressivism, white liberals have actually begun to overstate the prevalence of racism. Is this claim true? Again, the answer is no. And, again, the very evidence presented by center-left commentators shows that this claim is wrong. As recently as 2010, less than 30 percent of white liberals believed that anti-black discrimination was a “very serious problem” and less than 45 percent of white Democrats believed that racial discrimination causes inequality. Today, over 50 percent agree with each statement, both of which are objectively true.

Still, maybe Goldberg is right that newly Awokened white liberals have adopted a saviorism, treating racial minorities as victims in need of enlightened white leadership. But this claim is also wrong. Evidence ignored by center-left commentators shows that white liberals largely shifted their opinions on race in response to minority-led movements, especially Black Lives Matter. These movements directly pushed white liberals’ racial attitudes leftward and prompted changes in online and elite discourse that further encouraged anti-racist proclivities.

Ultimately, center-left concerns about the ‘Great Awokening’ reflect little more than misguided fears of racial progressivism. More precisely, they convey a fear that increasing anti-racism in the Democratic Party’s liberal base will alienate working and middle-class people who might otherwise support a progressive agenda. As Matthew Yglesias has stated, the “new post-Awokening political style will only help [Trump] win” and undermine the left.

This fear overstates the extent to which embracing racial progressivism automatically diminishes grassroots support for the left. Indeed, campaigns against racism can actually bolster support. At their best, these campaigns help working and middle-class people to develop a general oppositional consciousness that encourages them to think critically about not just racism but other sources of inequality. Furthermore, downplaying racism can undermine support for the left. Doing so signals that anti-racist efforts are unrelated to broader progressive struggles, thus, demobilizing race-conscious individuals who might have otherwise supported a progressive union drive, candidate, or community organization.

The Real Problem with the ‘Great Awokening’

In addition to cultivating misguided fears, center-left commentators have also distracted from the Awokening’s real problem — its failure to move past the crude identity politics that has long constrained many anti-racist efforts in the United States.

The hallmark of this crude politics is its assumption that racial minority groups share a common standpoint and perspective. Such an assumption leads well-intentioned liberals to overlook social hierarchies, especially class hierarchies, that cross-cut communities of color and fragment social and political life within them. Without attending to these hierarchies, white liberals easily fall prey to elite efforts to separate anti-racist struggles from efforts to build a powerful progressive majority. Not only do identitarian liberals overlook many of the extra-racial arrangements holding down people of color; they also fail to understand and effectively explain why fighting racism is in the interests of all working and middle-class people.

It is hard to say how many newly racially progressive whites remain tied to identity politics. However, the number is undoubtedly large. Identitarian liberalism has deep roots in the anti-racist left, the Democratic Party, the nonprofit sector, and college campuses. For example, I see evidence of its reach in my job at Oberlin College, where I teach courses on U.S. politics. It is why many of my racially progressive white students have trouble answering when I ask them if empowering black businessowners would benefit black people as a whole (the answer is clearly no). It is why those same students tend to equate white with “elite” and people of color with “oppressed.” It is why they have trouble engaging with black intellectuals’ class-conscious critiques of Black Lives Matter. And it is why they sometimes express bewilderment at the suggestion that racial progressives must link their cause to a multiracial and majoritarian political project – despite the fact that such a project is exactly what leading racial justice organizers are calling for.

Until white liberals overcome such identitarian confusions, their anti-racism will never amount to more than a laudable but unhelpful force for the left. The job of committed progressives is not to run away from them as the center-left does, but to show them how to build a multiracial progressive majority. Skilled organizers around the country pursue this task every day, educating working and middle-class people about the links between racism and other sources of inequality. Progressives should look to these organizers for guidance and set aside the center-left’s misguided fears.

David Forrest is an assistant professor at Oberlin College, where he studies the relationship between political organizing and inequality in the United States. His writing has been published in PS: Political Science & Politics, Polity, and several other venues.

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